Ed Benguiat, a master of typography, is dead at 92

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Ed Benguiat, a master of typography, is dead at 92
An undated image provided by Milton Glaser Design Study Center and Archives/Visual Arts Foundation, Ed Benguiat. Benguiat, a celebrated graphic designer known for his expertise in typefaces — including the one you see at the top of the print and web editions of The New York Times — who started his design career in a not-so-celebrated post at a movie magazine publisher, died on Thursday at his home in Cliffside Park, N.J. He was 92. Milton Glaser Design Study Center and Archives/Visual Arts Foundation via The New York Times.

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Ed Benguiat, a celebrated graphic designer known for his expertise in typefaces — including the one you see at the top of the print and web editions of this newspaper — started his design career in a not-so-celebrated post at a movie magazine publisher.

“My job was to be a cleavage retoucher,” he recalled in a video interview with the Type Directors Club. “My job was to take it out — take the cleavage out, remove it.”

It was the years after World War II, an era of the restrictive Hays Code in the movies.

“I was very good with an airbrush and buying doilies in the five-and-ten,” he said, strategically placed doilies being key to the cleavage removal process.

Benguiat went on to more sophisticated work. He became one of the go-to designers of the second half of the last century, especially in matters of typography. His hand was behind more than 600 typefaces, several of which bear his name (which is pronounced ben-GAT). The Telegraph of Britain, in a 2016 article about him prompted by the striking use of one of his fonts (ITC Benguiat) in the title sequence of the hit Netflix series “Stranger Things,” called him “one of the type industry’s greats.”

Benguiat died on Thursday at his home in Cliffside Park, New Jersey. He was 92.

His wife of 38 years, Elisa (Halperin) Benguiat, said through a spokeswoman that the cause was cancer.

Benguiat was an important figure in the design world for a number of reasons. According to his citation in the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame, where he was inducted in 2000, he helped establish the International Typeface Corporation, the first independent licensing company for type designers, and became its vice president. He also taught for almost 50 years at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan.

But it was his painstaking work designing new typefaces and modifying existing ones that made him a revered figure in the business, and that reached the public eye, although the public rarely knew his role. He designed logotypes for companies including Ford and AT&T and for Esquire, Look, McCall’s and other publications. His typefaces were seen in movies including “Super Fly” (1972) and “Planet of the Apes” (1968).

Benguiat understood the intricacies of a typeface in a way that today’s computer users, with countless fonts at their disposal, generally do not. He knew that a successful design wasn’t merely in the shaping of individual letters; it was in things like the spacing between those letters. And he knew that what looks good on a computer screen might not work when blown up to the size of a marquee or a billboard.

“At 3 feet high, the serif of a face like Bodoni is going to be 2 inches thick,” he told Macworld in 2001, referring to a popular typeface. “Someone has to fix it. I get called to do that.”

One such “fixer” assignment, in 1967, was for The New York Times. Louis Silverstein, the paper’s promotion art director at the time, was given the task of revisiting the nameplate, which had been tweaked over the previous century but remained a distinctive calling card. Silverstein tweaked it anew.

“To strengthen the logo, I redrew it,” he wrote later, “making the thicks thicker and the thins thinner.”

“I drew the new logo on tracing paper,” he added, “and hired Ed Benguiat to do the actual ink drawing. Ed was perhaps the most accomplished letterer in the country.”

One result of that redesign was the disappearance of the period that for decades had come after the word “Times” in the logo. (Some readers mourned its loss. “No tittle in your title?” one wrote.) In the Macworld interview, Benguiat recalled the Times logo assignment this way:

“Lou Silverstein was the art director. His thought was, ‘Change it.’ My thought was, ‘OK, we’ll change it — but if we change it, nobody will recognize it.’ So all I did was take it and fix it.”

Ephram Edward Benguiat was born on Oct. 27, 1927, in Brooklyn. His mother, Rose (Nahum) Benguiat, was a driver for the Red Cross, and his father, Jack, was design director at Bloomingdale’s; Benguiat often spoke of his childhood fascination with his father’s pens and paintbrushes.

Some articles about Benguiat over the years said that one of his first efforts at tweaking type was when he forged a birth certificate to make himself appear old enough to join the Army during World War II, but in a 2017 talk at the Type Directors Club, he corrected that; it was his father who did the forging, he said. It was good enough to get him into the Army Air Forces, and during the war he was stationed in Italy, serving first as a radio operator on a bomber and then doing photo reconnaissance.

Benguiat had been playing the drums since his father bought him a drum set at age 10, and under the name Eddie (or sometimes E.D.) Benart, he played with various jazz ensembles, including those of Woody Herman and Stan Kenton. But the work lost its allure.

“One day I went to the musician’s union to pay dues and I saw all these old people who were playing bar mitzvahs and Greek weddings,” he said. “It occurred to me that one day that’s going to be me, so I decided to become an illustrator.”

An establishment near one of the clubs where he played beckoned.

“There was a sign on Fifth Avenue; it said, ‘Draw me,’” he said in the 2017 talk. “So I went upstairs and I registered.”

It was the Workshop School of Advertising Art, where he studied layout, design, typography and calligraphy. The cleavage-covering job, he said, developed into something more by happenstance.

“The lettering man was gone, and something was missing,” he recalled. “I said, ‘I can do it,’ and I did it, and that’s what started the ball rolling.”

Eventually he had enough skills to be hired, in 1953, by Esquire magazine, and in 1962 he joined Photo-Lettering Inc., a typesetting company, as typographic design director. He developed some 400 typefaces there.

In 1971 he joined the newly established International Typeface, making a quick impact there by retooling the typeface Souvenir. His revised version became immensely popular.

As for his own typefaces, Benguiat said that developing one from scratch could take him a year or more. He wasn’t hostile to computers when they arrived and changed how graphic design was done, but he maintained that good design started with a good hand.

“If you can’t draw a shape that’s pleasing on a piece of paper,” he told Macworld, “how the hell are you going to do it on the screen?”

In a 1989 interview with The Times, he put it another way. “The most beautiful thing in the world,” he said, “is a blank piece of paper.”

In addition to his wife, Benguiat is survived by a granddaughter and two great-grandchildren. A son from an earlier marriage, Jon, died in January.

In the Type Directors Club video, Benguiat said he saw a connection between his early career as a musician and his later one.

“Music is placing sounds, to me, in their proper order so they’re pleasing to the ear,” he said. “That’s all. What is graphic design? Placing things in their proper order so they’re pleasing to the eye.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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